Author: Dom Rottman
29 May 2020
I do not need to emphasize the outrageousness, the heinousness, the immorality, or the thuggishness of the murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin, so I will try to stop it at this sentence. There is an infinite number of rightfully outraged social media posts that exist as an expression of what all Americans should be feeling. Instead I want to clarify and emphasize the brutal agent that murdered George Floyd: the law.
Over one hundred years ago Max Weber famously theorized that the state is best defined by the means exclusive to it: a monopoly on force and violence. If one of the functions of the state is to produce laws–indeed, even define what “law” is–then its agents are those who, using a monopoly on force, enforce those laws. Internationally, the chief agent is the military. Domestically, it is the police.
The police are a direct manifestation of a monopoly on force and therefore of the state and the law. Police action is the bare, naked face of the law, legitimized by the state, enforced by violence. When a policeman pulls you over for speeding, when he searches your home or seizes your belongings, as is his legal right, and, yes, when he crushes the neck of a black man, it is the law at work. The machinations and deliberations of congressmen and lobbyists on capitol hill may indeed seem like a faraway mystery to us. For most, the business of legislation is invisible and not a part of how citizens experience the law. The encounter between the policeman and citizen, however, is a site of the law being experienced in its everyday form.
What is the nature of this encounter? It is not a proper political one, of agents gathered together equally. It is a vertical one; the policeman holds authority over and above the citizen. Why? He can use, he is the monopoly on force. The citizen has no recourse against it, inasmuch as it supposedly guarantees his or her rights. The policeman commands respect not from his badge but from the barrel of his gun and his legal right to use it–and get away with it. The law, then, in this everyday encounter, is not our friend or some source of democratic pride, but rather nothing other than a hammer above waiting to crush us.
And the law is brutal–in 2019, the police killed over 1,099 people, 24% of whom were black, despite making up only 13% of Americans. Add to this potentially thousands of victims of non-fatal brutality, wrongful arrest, and civil asset forfeiture, it seems that violence is the nature of the law. With a monopoly on force, how could its nature be anything but? If men like Derek Chauvin–who already has a bloody track record–are supposed to be exceptions, then exceptions have long since gone out of control or have, more likely, become an effective part of the system. The lifeless or near lifeless bodies are not bugs. They are intentional features.
“So then the law must be changed!,” one might cry. How hard is it to change the very nature of something? The state and its laws depend on violence. It is their only distinguishing feature. Short of pipe dream reforms such as disarming the entire police–and not even that, as Chauvin used his knee–there is nothing built into our system of government, or any liberal system of government, to change this reality. What little did bodycams do? What little indeed will anything else do. Sure, the numbers may fall, but the issue will persist. Ask yourself or any black person if even one wrongful death at the hands of the law is acceptable. If the killing of George Floyd was murder, then the law is guilty of murder. If it was also racist, then the law is racist. If it was unjust, then the law is unjust. If it was immoral, then the law is immoral.
In typical fashion, the police have responded to the ensuing protests in Minneapolis with violence–tear gas, riot gear, the whole ordeal. In turn, protests have become riots and looting. Is it any wonder? Would an armed civilian not turn his own weapon against a violent assailant? And these rioters are not even armed. Their reactive violence is a desperate retaliatory cry in the only language the police understand. “But why must they riot and loot? In doing so they have lost all credibility!” Oh, won’t someone think of the poor helpless insurance profits! Why should the police, the aggressors, the initiators of violence, retain credibility despite being violent themselves? Simply because they are agents of the state, a state legitimized by violence? If police violence is credible while civilian violence is not, the moral law of the state is nothing less than “might makes right.” Besides, are police known to listen to a stern talking to, from civilians no less? They began with tear gas! They speak only in violence, and people are shocked and appalled when the citizenry dares to try and respond.
Defanged though our current zeitgeist would have him, some words from the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. are poignant:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
And when does the law listen if it has no ears to hear?